John N. Gardner Institute for Excellence in Undergraduate Education

The Great Recession’s Toll on Our Students

Many of our students have never had it easy in college and it has always been a struggle. But my sources at the front tell me that things have never been as bad for students in contemporary higher education as they are now during the “Great Recession.” And, of course, we are having our own very distracting problems, particularly with the impact of institutional budget reductions and with the impact of the Recession on our own loved ones outside our work in higher education. In my case, I have a brother who has been unemployed since last February and a sister whose job was reduced from full-time to half-time, but none of her expenses. But what about our students?

These are some of my thoughts, concerns, perhaps. Please compare these with yours:

• under more stress than ever (implications for demand on your counselors and all helping professionals)

• huge family pressures due to recession

• more need than ever for financial support and jobs on campus and connections to off-campus jobs

• going to have to ramp up Financial Aid offices and stop running them like sweat shops with all info now just on the web

• need more help in career planning—many of the old jobs aren’t going to be there anymore, vocational landscape is changing—implications for staffing of career centers—students need more help in vocational decision making

• students being drawn to public sector work—the government is hiring! Greater appeal of service professions especially teaching. (Raises questions of who is going to produce all the teachers? Universities haven’t stepped up which is a reason why in number of states community colleges are being authorized to offer teaching degrees). These careers have the only defined benefit plans left.

• students struggling to figure out what should their values be and many taking multiple gap years to do so: the quintessential American chase for riches has proved to be ephemeral

• students need us more than ever: they can’t function in the knowledge economy without us

• implication: they can even less afford the typical first year with its Vampire Economics (August train wreck) and Curriculum Roulette (high probability of high DWFI grades in first year across sections)—means first year has to be shaken up

• higher education is going to have to be more focused on the public good vs emulating the culture of capitalism and the relentless pursuit of increased wealth

• going to have to be more connected to employers

• going to have to rethink our curriculum and how we prepare students particularly in fields that have caused our financial Tsunami: banking, finance, real estate, auditing, insurance, law, public policy, and government service. Just think of the implications alone for the MBA curricula!

• we have to reduce time to degree completion rates which means we have to accelerate the BA degree and produce a real “three year” degree.

• we must pay more attention to the increasing numbers of students who are arriving on our campuses who have sacrificed the most for other Americans, our recently discharged veterans, as well as active duty military. The time for counseling, advising and other forms of understanding and support for America’s newest GI’s is now. And, it is worthy to note that they also have other student transition needs because they also come to us as “new” students, transfers, sophomores, etc.

I think I am just glad I was an undergraduate student in decades past. I really didn’t have to cope with any of these variables. Does this give me adequate capacity for empathy for my students today?

-John N. Gardner

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